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Tactics expert brilliantly breaks down how Arsenal are manipulating the Opposition Structure

There has been a lot of debate around Arsenal's recent performances which have elevated the Gunners to the top 4 of the Premier League – a spot they would want to hold on to till the end of the season. The primary factor behind these performances have been Arsenal’s improved offensive record. In their last three Premier League wins Mikel Arteta’s men have accumulated a combined xG of 7.4 which is easily their best return for any three consecutive matches this season.There have been several factors behind this upsurge – involvement of certain players, improved individual performances, the quality of the opposition, and other non-fundamental factors. But even if you remove these factors, you’ll still find a team playing good football thanks to the fundamentals of their game.In this article, I’ll look into one of these fundamentals of Mikel Arteta’s system which has played an underrated role in Arsenal’s offensive performances – drifting, it’s not really a tactic rather a habit of the players playing in that tactical system.If you’re not a consistent follower of the club, watching Arsenal could leave you with some questions, why is the striker dropping in the midfield, why is a midfielder playing as a left-back, why is the left-back making runs into the midfield, what is the attacking midfielder doing hugging the touchline?Mikel Arteta believes in versatility, he wants players who can drift in different spaces during different phases of the game – exchange positions with each other and a perfect example of the “what and how’’ of this is Arsenal’s game against Leeds United.In the visualizations above, it’s clear to see how Lacazette was consistently dropping deep in the midfield and at times even at left-back. Similarly, Odegaard was drifting wide picking up spaces close to the touchline.Now coming to “Why” they were doing it.Leeds play with a man-marking system where the markers strictly follow their target all around the pitch, Arsenal players want to exploit that by drifting out of position, picking up different spots to occupy which then attracted Leeds’s players out of position opening up spaces to exploit.In the snapshot above, Lacazette has drifted wide at left-back which has attracted his marker, Leeds’s right-sided center-back Robin Koch, out of position. While Martinelli picks up the center-forward position (not in the screen), Tierney, who was playing as the left-back stations himself higher up the pitch as the left-winger (not in the screen).It is the same shape Arsenal are playing but with an advantage – because Koch is higher up the pitch marking Lacazette, Leeds are one defender short in their backline which Arsenal can exploit.Similarly, here Odegaard is drifting wide to attract his marker Adam Forshaw out of position to make it easier for Takehiro Tomiyasu, who has drifted inside into the midfield – counter movement, Arsenal still have their spaces occupied by just interchanging the personals and in the process disrupting Leeds’ shape – to pick out a pass into Bukayo Saka.Advert InsertedDrifting has been one of the key fundamentals under Mikel Arteta, Arsenal players do so frequently throughout the game to not just open up spaces but also cause overloads/underloads and take advantage of it through their high and wide wingers.In this scenario below against Sunderland in the Carabao cup fixture, Nuno Tavares, who is deployed as a left-back, joins the midfield while center-forward Eddie Nketiah drifts wide into the left half-space to create a left-sided overload. To deal with it, Sunderland had to shift their shape creating underload on their left-wing. Arsenal make a quick switch of play to exploit it and end up scoring a goal with few passes.The aim for most tactics in football is to move the ball in a way that the opposition structure is disrupted and space opens up to be exploited. Drifting allows that to happen, when Arsenal find themselves short in numbers in the two-man midfield Lacazette would drop in which would either force the opposition to commit another man to sustain their numerical advantage or concede that advantage. When Odegaard pulls wide, the opposition has to send a marker close to him as they simply can’t afford to give him space and time on the ball but in doing so they open up spaces in the midfield which an advancing Xhaka or an inverting Tavares/Tierney could exploit.Here's a good example of how Arsenal players cover for each other when they drift to keep their shape. Cedric, right-back, has advanced in the right-winger space so Nico Pepe, right-winger, stays back to cover for the space vacated by Cedric.A major criticism that I had from this Arsenal side was that offensively they were easy to ‘contain’, never offered enough movement to challenge the opposition’s game plan. That has changed lately, especially with the reintroduction of Alex Lacazette and Granit Xhaka into the side. Both these players play a critical role in Arsenal’s shape with well-defined structural roles. So it’s important that they understand when to drift around and when to hold their position and their tactical intelligence allows them to time their actions to perfection.Also, as much as it sounds like an individual action, drifting isn’t that at all, if your team is not well coached to allow individuals to perform these actions it could backfire big time. If Xhaka is leaving his midfield spot to play as a left-back and Lacazette doesn’t drop into the midfield then Arsenal will be short in numbers in the midfield. In turn, if Xhaka doesn’t drop back to cover for Tavares’ advancing runs then it could expose their wings.There is still a long way to go for Mikel Arteta and his tricky reds but they have started to play as a cohesive unit – as they showed in the first half against Leeds – and that has to be a big positive for the Gunners going forward.